Families in Anchorage and nearby school districts got the alert Wednesday evening as a major winter storm arrived: There’d be no school the next day — sort of. Instead of a snow day, it would be a “remote learning day” for students, a carryover from pandemic-era schooling.
That led some families to wonder: Did the advent of remote learning mean the end of traditional snow days? Are kids destined to spend stormy days at home in front of screens and homework packets instead of sledding and sleeping in?
Anchorage mom Kaya Avila said Thursday she was pro-snow day, because she thinks remote learning puts too much extra work on parents and deprives children of unstructured time off that can be joyful for them. Avila is a parent of three, including a kindergartner and a second grader at Ptarmigan Elementary in East Anchorage.
“A lot of parents might not have the luxury to be home educating their children during a snowy day,” she said. “And traditionally, a snow day is a cherished memory of getting outside in big, fluffy mountains of snow.”
The decision to implement remote learning days this year was in part a response to last December’s “snowpocalypse,” school district officials said Thursday. That series of storms cumulatively shut down schools for seven days as maintenance crews struggled to clear heavy, built-up snow.
As a result, the district added an extra half-hour to the school day for several weeks to make up the time, inconveniencing both families and educators.
The district said it still reserves two “closure” days — usually snow days — into its calendar. But this week’s remote learning day was an attempt to save those days for even worse weather, “more like hurricane-force winds and multiple trees taking out power,” when remote learning might not be possible, said Sven Gustafson, the district’s chief academic officer.
Changing forecasts for this week’s storm also made it difficult to predict how much snow would fall Thursday, he said.
Gustafson said the district received positive feedback from families about announcing the decision to shift to remote learning the night before instead of waiting until the morning of, and said that whenever possible, the district would try to make the call early.
Multiple factors go into the decision, added Jim Anderson, the district’s chief operating officer. The district calls the National Weather Service multiple times; it sends out test drivers to report on potential risks and hazards; and it consults the municipality’s road maintenance crews. Student and staff safety is always the district’s biggest concern, he said.
“In this case, we talked to the Anchorage road crews, and we knew that they were only going to be able to clear the major arterial roads, and not the side streets,” Anderson said. “And once we knew the side streets weren’t going to be clear, we knew we couldn’t get our buses to pick up students.”
Generally, remote learning days are “a bit controversial” among teachers, said Corey Aist, head of the Anchorage Education Association, the teachers union that represents district educators.
The union’s priority is making sure kids are in school as much as possible, and avoiding what happened last year with extended class times, which was hugely inconvenient, he said.
But remote learning can be challenging for both teachers and students because of internet and other technology issues, he said. From an education standpoint, it’s also not as successful as in-person learning, he said.
Gustafson said remote-learning plans are put into place by each individual school, and vary across the district. But generally, all high schoolers and most middle schoolers are issued a laptop for remote work, and the general protocol for elementary schoolers is take-home homework packets instead of Zoom, he said.
Aist said he wanted families to know that they could reach out to their children’s teachers with concerns about remote learning, technology issues or anything else on bad weather learning days.
“Educators are working really hard to make themselves available on these remote learning days,” he said. “And we encourage students and families to engage with their teachers if they need support.”
Even though Thursday was a remote learning day, not a snow day, Avila’s kids spent the day drinking hot chocolate, playing in the yard and reading instead of filling out the learning packets her children’s teachers sent home, she said.
Snow days should be a joyful break for kids, she said.
“We live in such a rigid, scheduled world that the kids who have all these activities almost don’t have any time off,” she said.
Others agreed with this philosophy.
“I feel the (school district) is trying to do right with the remote learning, but let’s be realistic, no kid is going to happily sit inside their home while it’s dumping white fluff outside,” Chris Casey from Eagle River wrote in a message.
But not all parents and families feel the same way.
Ashley Ardrey, parent of seventh grader Zev Buchea, called remote learning a “brilliant model” that has allowed her child to stay on top of work and minimize disruptions even when the weather is bad. Buchea attends Steller Secondary School in Anchorage.
Remote learning “keeps my child on task and gives them structure,” Ardrey said. Zev spent the morning checking their grades and completing an online science assignment.
“So it’s kind of been a typical school day for them so far, other than socializing with their friends,” Ardrey said Thursday afternoon.
Ardrey said she’s not entirely opposed to snow days, and believes remote learning can be especially difficult for elementary-aged kids who do not do well with prolonged Zoom sessions, or for some students with special needs who thrive with more structure. But for many students, she says she believes the benefits outweigh the cons.
“Our first snow dump is already over 2 feet. And my fear for kids is that they’ll get behind. And that it will eat into other days that they really do deserve,” she said.
[Correction: This story was updated to reflect that Jim Anderson, not Sven Gustafson, spoke about the school district’s process for deciding when to close schools.]